With the coronavirus pandemic seeming to have turned the world upside down, we are thinking about ethics: is it OK in a time like this to play the ponies?
We say yes, at least for now. There are going to be a lot of people confined to their houses over the next month or so, and as long as it is safe to conduct the races, safe for the jockeys, the grooms, the hotwalkers, and all the rest, then having a flutter via in-home wagering is a damn good way to stave off boredom and to pass the time. It is worth noting that as recently as fifteen or so years ago, this would not have been an option for most people -- most bets have been placed offtrack for decades, but they were at locations outside people's homes, like OTBs. The explosion of availability of in-home account wagering the past few years allows us to play the races, even when we're stuck inside the house. So we'll give three cheers for the technology that allows us to bet the races even when we're stuck at home.
The major tracks running today are Gulfstream, the Fair Grounds, and Oaklawn Park. We've found six races, two from each, that we think are worth playing. We've listed them in chronological order, and are expecting fast dirt and firm turf in all of them. Let's go.
Fair Grounds, Race 4, 2:57 pm ET
Alllowance/Optional Claiming, 5 1/2 furlongs, Turf, Fillies & Mares 4 & Up
This allowance turf sprint drew a big field of eleven older females, with two of them coupled in the wagering due to common ownership, leaving ten betting interests. It's a good betting race.
We rarely make plays strictly based on class, but we will do so here: we think that 7/2 morning line favorite 3-Stellar Agent stands pretty clearly above the rest of the field. She has seven career starts, all on grass, and while she has won only one of them, she has been running against some pretty tough company, in stakes races and high-level allowances at Saratoga and Belmont. In this one, against a much less formidable group, we think she is going to be very, very tough to beat. She makes her second start off a layoff, having finished a fast-closing third on January 19 at the Fair Grounds; we expect her to be more forwardly placed today, and to earn a trip to the winner's circle with a strong late move. We doubt she will be 7/2 at post time, but we like her enough to bet her anyway. We'll play her to win. The bet: Fair Grounds, Race 4, $35 to win on 3-Stellar Agent.
Fair Grounds, Race 6, 3:55 pm ET
Starter Alllowance/Optional Claiming, 1 mile, Turf, 4 & Up
The conditions for this race are complicated, but they were popular at the entry box. as they drew a full field of thirteen. There's enough speed in the group that we're expecting a fast pace, and a winner who will be coming from behind. We think that runner is 2-Resilient Rick, a stretch-running 7-year-old gelding who starts for trainer Keith Bourgeois. His last five starts have come at this level, and while he's run well in all of them, never finishing worse than fifth, he failed to win any of them, as his late run was too little, too late.
We see this frequently with deep closers: in order to win, they need a fast pace to set up their late rally. We think that Resilient Rick will get that today, and that will allow him to pass all, rather than just most, of the other horses. We will bet him to win at 9/2. The bet: Fair Grounds, Race 6, $30 to win on 2-Reslient Rick.
Gulfstream Park, Race 8, 4:36 pm ET
Starter Alllowance, 1 1/16 miles, Turf, Fillies & Mares 4 & Up
This starter allowance drew a field of nine, but two of them are from the barn of Jorge Navarro, who was indicted by the FBI on Monday, and they will consequently be scratched. It's a race that's worth playing even with the reduced number of entrants, for two reasons: one is that we are expecting the grass course at Gulfstream Park today to be very speed-favoring, and the second is that we think we know who will have the early lead in this race: it's 9-Bean Counter, who starts for Todd Pletcher. He finished second after setting the pace in a one-mile allowance race last out; that was his first race around two turns, and it was at a higher level than today (starter allowances are a cut below straight allowance races). We think he wires this field from his outside post, and we will eagerly take 6-1 odds at the prospect. We will bet him to win. The bet: Gulfstream Park, Race 8, $35 to win on 9-Bean Counter.
Oaklawn Park, Race 7, 5:14 pm ET
Alllowance/Optional Claiming, 6 furlongs, Dirt, Arkansas-breds 3 & Up
This state-bred allowance drew a field of eight, but we have eyes for only one: it's 1-Hoonani Road, a 5-year-old gelding whose speed figures give him an insuperable advantage over the rest of the field. We will not overcomplicate this: sometimes it really is as simple as identifying the best horse and betting him to win. We will do that here, and play Hoonani Road to win at 8/5. The bet: Oaklawn Park, Race 7, $50 to win on 1-Hoonani Road.
Oaklawn Park, Race 8, 5:42 pm ET
Alllowance, 1 1/16 miles, Dirt, 3-Year-Old Fillies
This first-level allowance race drew a nice field of nine sophomore fillies. There are some good-looking runners in here, some expensive and well-bred horses. We like a particularly well-bred one, 6-Charming Lady, who runs for trainer Tom Amoss. She won her career debut sprinting in January, and then tried winners for the first time in an allowance race last month, setting the pace and finishing third. There is one thing about her race pattern that we especially like: she earned a virtually identical speed figure (72) in her second race as she did in her first (71). When young horses pair figures like this, it is usually a sign that they are developing and improving quite rapidly, and they will very often run even faster in their next start. That would be today for Charming Lady, and there are reasons to suspect that her improvement today may be bigger than the norm: the first is that she ran just as fast going around two turns as she did sprinting (most young horses regress, at least in their first try; that she did not suggests that she has quite a bit of ability). The second reason is that her pedigree (by Ghostzapper, out of an Indian Charlie mare) practically screams that she will thrive going around two turns on dirt. Add it all up, and she is a strong pick. We will bet her to win at 3-1, and we will do so enthusiastically. The bet: Oaklawn Park, Race 8, $40 to win on 6-Charming Lady.
Gulfstream Park, Race 10, 5:38 pm ET
$50,000 Maiden Claiming, 1 mile, Turf, 3-Year-Olds
The final can in our Thursday six pack is a maiden claimer for 3-year-old colts at a mile on the grass. We like a horse on the outside, 10-Budget Buster, who's trained by Mike Maker. There are a couple of no-hope speedsters in here, horses who are likely to set a fast pace but who will not be able to sustain it, even on the speed-friendly Gulfstream sod. We think that Budget Buster, who's just missed in his last two, finishing third and second, will get an ideal trip right behind the pacesetters, as he has some early speed of his own, which should allow him to get good tactical position early. We see him stalking the pace and taking the lead when they turn for home, and this is the way to win races on the Gulfstream grass course these days, as horses in front at the top of the stretch are very, very difficult to pass. We'll take 9/2 on Budget Buster, and bet him to win. The bet: Gulfstream Park, Race 10, $30 to win on 10-Budget Buster.
That's all for today. We'll be back on Saturday for a look at the national stakes action, including the Rebel from Oaklawn. We are looking forward to it, so until then, be well, and good luck at the windows.